How much more can we say about the risks associated with working at height? What is left to be discussed?
Last month HSE published the annual statistics for 2018/19, which revealed that over a quarter of the fatalities arose as a result of falls from height.
This comes as no surprise to us at THSP. In the first six months of this year, our team of health and safety consultants undertook some 3,400 site safety evaluations. During these inspections they found 1174 incidents where operatives were seen working unsafely at height. This accounted for more than 10% of all observations and was the area with by far the largest number of issues identified.
In February this year the All-Party Parliamentary Group, sponsored by the Access Industry Forum (AIF) published “Staying Alive: Preventing Serious Injury and Fatalities while Working at Height”which set out six key recommendations:
- Enhanced RIDDOR reporting
- Establishing an independent body to collect non-RIDDOR accident information
- An extension to the “working well together” campaign
- The introduction of a fatal accident inquiry process
- A digital technology strategy to allow for investment in new tech
- A further review of work at height culture
Whilst commendable, none of these things will address the problem today.
Improvements to the design, manufacture and availability of access equipment has been responsible for some reduction in the number of workplace deaths, just as a fear of prosecution and resulting fines might have sharpened the focus of some employers, but truth be told these issues are rarely considered by the people actually at risk of harm.
Construction site welfare accommodation is decorated with posters of adorable young children asking daddy to “come home safely” and this too might be having some impact.
Stirling work by organisations such as Proud to be Safe build on this sentiment and encourage every worker to take a few seconds to consider the consequences of their actions before taking them and yet we are still likely to be looking at falls from height being the cause of almost 1 in 12 accidents and a quarter of all fatalities.
At a recent presentation we illustrated the issue of falls from height with this photograph, provided by HSE and were astounded at the outrage from the delegates at our suggestion that this was not a unique occurrence, many even suggested that we had “mocked up” the scenario to make a point.
Whilst it was not our photo, there have been countless times that we have observed something similar.
The next comment was that this must have been the fault of the individual, that no-one would tell an employee to work in such a way. It is our experience that rather than instruct an employee to behave this way, perhaps the problem was that there had been a lack of planning in the first place. Countless times we are presented with copies of generic risk assessments and method statements that list “either/or” options for work at height equipment, with phrases such as “appropriate access equipment” or “a ladder, podium or similar to be used”. This has always looked to me like asking someone to drive 70 miles in an hour – physically possible but highly unlikely to be achievable within the law.
Since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act, the right to refuse to work unsafely has been enshrined in law and over the past few years Behavioural Safety Programmes have encouraged us to take responsibility for our actions and those of our colleagues. So why don’t workers refuse to work like this? What motivates them to put their life and limbs at jeopardy in this manner?
It cannot be a lack of awareness. I started this piece by stating how commonplace articles about work at height are. Has our workforce therefore become addicted to playing the game of life lottery, believing that the chances of rolling double six, selecting the correct six numbers or having a catastrophic fall are so slim to not worth worry about?
(What is strange about that analogy is that the higher they climb the more likely they feel they might roll that double six.)
Or is it that we are all rushing towards the completion of our tasks, and the likelihood of a fall being relatively low, we charge past the problem without giving it adequate thought?
The introduction of mandatory hard hats on site did not bed in immediately and there are still a few stragglers determined through a sense of stubborn independence, who flout what is now the convention, but we can still regard the progress made as success (albeit hardly an overnight one). So how did we achieve this?
Through bloody minded perseverance! By foremen, site supervisors, managers and health and safety people badgering away at workers. Red and yellow cards, site inductions, training, posters, and downright belligerence is how.
Have we convinced all of the workforce of our argument? I doubt it, but the effect is still the one we were aiming for.
It is my belief that we are not going to solve the problem overnight. What we have to do is to continue doing what we already do, but do it more often and better, until we get the results that our workforce deserves.
Chris Ivey CMIOSH
Consultant Director – THSP Risk Management